In July 1972, anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista was appointed the Nepali consul general to Lhasa. By his own admission, because Tibet had never been as closed off to Nepalis as to people from the rest of the world, “privileged access to Tibet did nothing to arouse my imagination until I developed an interest” in the many Nepali ethnic communities that had social, religious and cultural links with Tibet.
In Tibet, Bista met with several Nepalis and Tibetan Nepalis. He estimated there were a little more than 500 living in Tibet at the time, of whom 40 were born in Nepal. As he wrote in his 1979 book Report from Lhasa, “The others were born in the Tibet region either of mixed parentage or mixed ancestry of a few generations back, but all still maintaining Nepali lineages” that arose primarily out of the trans-Himalayan trade conducted by Newars from Kathmandu. The heydays of the Lhasa Newars, as they were called, were over by the time Bista arrived. Nonetheless, among those he met was one merchant who tried to coax him into giving Nepali citizenship to his mistress.
In 1976, after his return to Nepal, Bista wrote the novel Sotala that described the life of a Newar trader named Sanuman who goes to Lhasa to seek his fortune and finds love and family in a distant land. For Bista, this was an unusual turn; he was an academic, first and foremost. His thesis on the roots of Nepal’s underdevelopment, Fatalism and Development, remains a bestselling primer on the country. His sudden disappearance in 1995 has been the subject of countless speculation, and it is not uncommon to see a news report on his annual birth anniversary recounting the disappearance.
‘Sotala’ was a term used by Tibetans to address Newar merchants, and Bista writes that although much had been written about the romanticism and the supposed wealth one accrued from the trade, such as in Nepali-language poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s Muna Madan, very little was known about how the merchants travelled, lived, and loved. “I picked up my pen with the intention to bring out this side of the story. A novel took form. That’s all I have to say.” The novel begins at the turn of the 20th century, when the Younghusband military expedition had not yet opened up the Nathu La route, and traders from Nepal still used the traditional route via Kuti to travel to Tibet.
In this translated chapter, Sanuman has just crossed over to Tibet for the first time, employed as a labourer with a merchant’s caravan. In it, we see the wonder that might have overwhelmed other Nepali traders when they would first witness Tibet’s desolate landscape that stood in stark contrast to the temperate and greener hills of Nepal. We also see Sanuman’s – and, in turn, other traders’ – realisation that the world was far, far bigger than they had imagined and that Nepal meant more than just the Kathmandu Valley as Sanuman had come to believe. And finally, Bista’s novel is also about the idea that travel expands the mind and allows one to overcome cultural differences.
(By the translator Amish Raj Mulmi)
The caravan of Sanuman
The days went on by, and Sanuman stopped caring.
The weak morning sun gradually rose in the sky. By mid-day, it would be blazing hot, and thereafter the rays would shorten until the sun would set.
The clear skies were vast and remained a deep blue, like indigo. Like the men who accompanied the yaks carrying the load, he too would walk at a slow pace.
Sanuman no longer remembered which day of the week it was, or the date. He’d even forgotten which month it was. How could he, for there was nothing to distinguish yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows? The days felt all the same. At times he thought he’d left home years ago. Then sometimes, as if he’d just left the previous day. His cheek still hurt from the resounding slap from the night patrolman the night he left home. Then when he touched his cheek where it hurt, he realised it was not the pain of the patrolman’s slap but the tenderness of a sunburn. The sun had pierced through his cheeks and the tip of his nose, and the skin had begun to peel. And he’d scratched right where it hurt.
Furtemba saw him touching his face. “Rub some ghiu on it before you sleep,” he advised Sanuman.
A clear blue sky without a cloud in sight and a harsh sun that beat down on him – this was his reality every day, and he had come to accept it. He grew tired sitting on the back of the yak. His dangling legs would hurt, and he would get off and start walking. The yak was led by a rope that dangled from a hole in its septum and would give Sanuman a brief look before continuing on its way.
“They are not Bhotes. They are Sherpas from Solukhumbu who trade in yaks and are also pilgrims.”
Sanuman had grown accustomed to that fat, stocky, hairy beast. But in the first few days, he was terrified of it. The fear had now mutated into a sort of endearment, even love. Now, before he sat on its back, Sanuman would pet the yak and offer him some kind words.
The yak was a heavy animal, yet it climbed the steepest of slopes with ease. Sanuman was fascinated. Every time he tried walking up those hills, he felt as if his heart would explode after just a few steps. But how could the yak amble on and on without a care in the world? “Doesn’t this animal get tired climbing these hills?” Sanuman would ask himself.
The yak didn’t have a horn, and where there should have been one, was a stump. As the yak sauntered up the slope, Sanuman would get lost in his thoughts. What pulled him back to reality were those naked hills all around him. Then he would lose himself in the landscape.
A rivulet carried in its waters thousands of mirrors that reflected the sun’s rays in the distance. Scattered across both its banks were round pebbles. Across the stream were tall white mountains whose peaks wore snow-hats. And all around it was a desolate plain, void of any people, settlements, homes, fields, and forests. A deep fear would gnaw into Sanuman at this sight. Then, within a moment, his mind would unshackle itself, and he would feel the joy of a child. But the fear never went away – what if something happened to him in this terrifying place? Then he would soothe himself, “What could happen in this wasteland?”
Whenever the caravan would camp for the night while the sun was still in the skies, he would feel tremendous satisfaction. Tired and exhausted, every time he unloaded bundles off the animals, he thought he had accomplished a work of great valour. Sanuman had indeed shown courage. How many people would even attempt to undergo such troubles? These thoughts would fortify him.
The road from Tingri was even more desolate, and went on for days. It followed a valley between two ranges, and by the end of it, even the landscape and the natural wonders ceased to amaze Sanuman. There were brown rocks and empty hills as far as he could see, and his eyes began to hurt. The riverbanks full of pebbles irritated him. The caravans of donkeys, mules and yaks he met on the way no longer gave him joy. As soon as they had set up camp, Sanuman would set up a fire, brew some tea, then mix the tsampa that was his dinner. Early next morning, once again he would boil tea, then spend an hour or so looking for the yak. He would tie up the load on the animal’s back once again, and once again he would start to walk. Life revolved around these duties for him now.
Till a few weeks ago, Sanuman thought of anyone who was not from Jaisidewal as an outsider.
Then, one afternoon, something happened that erased his ennui. A group of Tibetans came in from the east, their large herd of yaks and dzos raising a cloud of dust. As soon as he saw them, Sanuman asked himself, “Who are they? Where do they intend to go, in this land of naked peaks and trails that straddle valleys?” He grew curious, and when they crossed each other, the two caravans stopped and began talking to each other. They sat down to rest beside the trail, and Furtemba told Sanuman, “They are not Bhotes. They are Sherpas from Solukhumbu who trade in yaks and are also pilgrims.”
Sanuman found it difficult to believe those people, who looked like Tibetans and herded so many yaks and dzos, could be Nepalis as well. Dissatisfied by Furtemba’s explanation, he asked one of them, “Brother, are you all Nepalis too?”
“Of course.” One of them, a stocky man who looked like he was about 30 years old and had a pleased expression, replied.
“Where have you brought such a large herd of yaks from?”
“From our village.”
“Where is your village?”
“East, number three. Our village is called Namche Bazaar, in Khumbu.”
“Where are you taking these animals then?”
“To the west. We will sell them in Mustang, Dolpo, and in Limi-Muchu.”
“Don’t they get yaks there?”
“They have purebred yaks, which they buy from Bhot. But we sell them dzos.”
“Aren’t those places in Bhot too?”
“Not at all. All of them are within Nepal’s borders. They are all subjects of the Nepali king.”
Sanuman was taken aback. He was not aware of these places or that all of their people were subjects of the Nepali king.
“How long will it take you to reach there?” he asked again.
“Two months, perhaps. The animals will have to graze.”
“And how many days has it been since you left home?” Sanuman’s curiosity did not abate.
“Almost a month.”
Sanuman grew proud of the immensity of Nepal. How big it was! How unknown it was!
“Why didn’t you go straight through Nepal? Why have you come via this winding path that’s taken you so many days?”
“Oho! You don’t know much, do you? This road we’re on, this is a shorter route. Where in Nepal are we going to find trails for our yaks?”
Sanuman thought the man was talking nonsense! Wouldn’t Nepal have trails that yaks could walk on? Nonetheless, he continued with his questions.
“Have you been to Kathmandu?”
“Yes. We move down to Kathmandu when the cold arrives every winter.”
“Where do you stay in Kathmandu then?”
“Sometimes in Bouddha, sometimes in Swayambhu. Where do you come from?”
“Where in Kathmandu?”
“Oh! I have been to Jaisidewal. It falls on the way between Lagan and Swayambhu, right?”
Sanuman wanted to fulfil his curiosity, so a few moments later, he asked, “Why did you say Nepal doesn’t have paths yaks can walk on?”
The man laughed. He casually stretched out his back, growing stronger in his disregard for the Kathmandu natives’ scepticism. “You Kathmandu folks think that all of Nepal is like your city. Where are the paths in the mountains and the hills that our yaks can walk on?” He pointed towards the Himalaya and continued, “If we go to the plains, the yaks will get malaria and die. That is why we travel with the yaks through the Tingri flatlands.”
Sanuman tried to absorb what the man was saying.
The cold of the morning would make his nose run, just like theirs.
The Sherpas then got up and prepared to leave. The man wished Sanuman, “Safe travels, daju.” Sanuman felt discomfited, seeing a man with a thicker moustache than him address him as an elder brother. But these were habits that had become tradition. One did not establish relations by looking at age.
Sanuman continued to think about what the Sherpa from Khumbu had told him till his caravan camped in the evening. ‘Nepal’ had changed for him since the time he left home. He now imagined it differently. Yes, he had learnt a lot when he arrived at the Kuti Pass, and had seen many new things. But what the Sherpa told him had astounded him even more.
In camp that night, he spoke frankly with Furtemba and his friend Losang Dawa. Till a few weeks ago, Sanuman thought of anyone who was not from Jaisidewal as an outsider and did not trust them at all. Now, he had come to regard Furtemba and Losang Dawa as intimate friends, and trusted them completely. When they started out, Sanuman thought the two were dirty Bhotes with terrible habits. A wave of disgust rode over him when he had to eat tsampa for the first time, the night they camped after leaving Kuti. Both Furtemba and Losang would pick up dollops of tsampa flour from their bags into the phuru bowls without washing their hands – the same hands they used to wipe their sweat and their runny noses. He stared at them in astonishment. They would put some butter and sprinkle hard cheese on top. Then they would pour the tea, and with the same hands, begin kneading the tsampa flour into balls. Their palms would be creased with dirt and sweat, but by the time they finished kneading the tsampa, they would be clean.
Sanuman could not eat the tsampa after seeing them; but slowly, he got used to it. A few days later, he realised his habits were no longer any different than the two’s. The cold of the morning would make his nose run, just like theirs. And he would sweat in the midday sun, just as the others did. And he wiped it all with his hands. As the days went by, he stopped thinking of his friends as dirty. His lips cracked, his cheeks and arms dried up, and now he looked as rough as the others. And now he had become good friends with the two of them, and he told them stories about his family and his home while they talked about theirs.
One evening, they had to camp by a stream, far away from any settlement. They collected dry goat and yak dung from the surrounding hills for fuel. After their meal, they sat by the dung-fire and began to talk. Furtemba then told him a story that soothed his heart.
Furtemba’s father was a Nepali, too. But he died when Furtemba was a child; his heart had run out of fuel because of all the alcohol he had consumed. Furtemba didn’t remember him at all. Then his mother eloped with a Bhote from Lhasa, and Furtemba grew up in his stepfather’s house. But the memory of his dead father continued to haunt him, and when he grew up, he left for Nepal to find his father’s house.
His father was called Ramlal Tamot. He lived in Tyodatole’s Nhuchenani. That’s all Furtemba knew, and with that information, he roamed through Kathmandu’s lanes looking for the place. Furtemba then told Sanuman what happened when he finally found his father’s house.
~ This excerpt was translated by Amish Raj Mulmi. He is the author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China (Context/Westland, 2021).
~ Dor Bahadur Bista (c. 1924-1995) was a Nepali anthropologist and social scientist. His most famous works include Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization, and People of Nepal. He was Nepal’s consul general to Lhasa between 1972-1975, and he founded the Karnali Institute. Sotala was first published in 1976.
This excerpt was translated by Amish Raj Mulmi. He is the author of 'All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China' (Context/Westland, 2021). Dor Bahadur Bista (c. 1924-1995) was a Nepali anthropologist and social scientist. His most famous works include 'Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization', and 'People of Nepal'. He was Nepal’s consul general to Lhasa between 1972-1975, and he founded the Karnali Institute. Sotala was first published in 1976.